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Student-led conferences: A growing trend


Student writing on boardFor years parent-teacher conferences have been the primary means of parent-teacher communication. But now, many schools are trying something new—student-led conferences that communicate not only how a student's doing but also why.

Parent-teacher conferences—we all know how they go. Parents troop into classrooms to talk with teachers about their children's progress in school. Often, the process feels rushed, and parents leave feeling vaguely dissatisfied, as if they didn't really get what they came for.

For years that process has been the norm, but now it is changing. In more and more schools, students are leading conferences, and, overall, the word is that they're doing a fine job.

Many teachers themselves speak enthusiastically of the advantages of student-led conferences over teacher-led ones. "We found the [student-led] conferences most beneficial," said Keith Eddinger of the Marcus Whitman Middle School in Rushville, New York. "From a teacher's perspective, we were able to get a better picture of each child. It forced us to sit down with each student and review strengths and weaknesses. This conversation often told us the students learned more than perhaps we had measured through conventional assessments."

Eddinger added, "Our post-conference reviews with parents and students were overwhelmingly positive."

John Osgood, of C. L. Jones Middle School in Minden, Nebraska, found that "comments [about student-led conferences] from parents and board members were very positive."

Another staff member, Dick Philips, said, "Most parents listened to their child. It was interesting listening to [children] explain low grades to their parents. It did open the lines of communication."

"Several parents really liked it because it gave them an opportunity to see their child's work," said Sue Yant, another staff member. Yet "some [parents] said they hoped we [would hold] the traditional conference once a year."

Student preparation

"The format is important, but I believe the success of a student-led conference is most determined by how well students are prepared," wrote Laura Hayden, a seventh-grade communications teacher at Derby Middle School in Derby, Kansas, in Letting Students Lead Parent Conferences, an article published by the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Middle Matters.

The conference format at Hayden's school had students show parents some of their work and explain their grades in a student-led conference. Each team could conduct conferences a bit differently. Hayden's team used an open house arrangement in which students and parents visited all team members' classrooms, but other teams held the entire conference in one classroom.

The significance of format aside, Hayden focused her students on preparation. At the beginning of the school year, she had students set up a binder to contain a portfolio as well as graded work. She explained that students had to keep their binders orderly because they would use them to lead their conferences.

A week before the conferences, Hayden's team sent home a letter informing parents of the conference and the fact that their child would lead it. About three days before conferences, she had students prepare portfolios of their work to date, including a special project, a quiz, a homework assignment, and one assignment from which they felt they had learned the most. Students also wrote a reflection on their grades and study habits. They set goals for the next semester and organized their graded work section.

The day before conferences, teachers role-played, pretending to be the student, with the student playing the teacher or the parent. Teachers modeled, for example, how to explain a poor grade to parents, and they gave students a checklist of what to cover in the conference.

Student responsibility

"The preparatory time is worth it," Hayden wrote, "especially when you hear a struggling student explaining what he or she learned from an assignment and taking responsibility for the score he or she achieved."

"[Students] need to understand that they are in control of their own efforts to learn the material," said Barbara Rommel, superintendent of the David Douglas School District in Oregon. (Source: "New Method Puts Student in Charge," an article published in the Oregonian newspaper.)

The Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century requires students to meet higher standards. By having students assess how they are progressing toward those standards, educators say, students will know how far they've come and how far they have to go to meet the standards.

"It helps them accept responsibility for their learning," said Patti Kinney, principal of Talent Middle School in Oregon.

"I like being able to tell my side of the story," Josh Whitney-Wise of Milwaukie, Oregon's, McLoughlin Middle School told the Oregonian.

Advantages and disadvantages

Educators acknowledge that there are disadvantages as well as advantages to student-led conferences. Although parent attendance seems higher for student-led conferences than for teacher-led ones, a parent's failure to attend a student-led conference leads to a great deal of disappointment for a student who has worked hard to prepare.

Another disadvantage is that some parents want to spend more time with their child's teacher, receiving his or her viewpoint. Nearly all schools with student-led conferences will let parents make separate appointments to confer with teachers.

For the most part, parents support the concept of student-led conferences, though some support them with slight reservations. "My daughter was in a class that did student-led conferences a couple of years ago," said one parent of a child at Jones Middle School. "I think the object was to make the child feel a part of the whole process, to get them in tune with their own progress. As a parent, I felt like I still needed some info from the teachers and wanted more. But I do think the student gets a new perspective on their grades. Personally, I don't think it would be good to do this often, but once a year is good. When you ask if they were 'beneficial,' I can say yes and no. They were more beneficial to the student than to the parent."

But the advantages, say most teachers who have participated in student-led conferences, outweigh the downside. Student accountability is mentioned again and again by educators as a plus for student-led conferences. Another plus is the way even a struggling student can produce something positive for a conference, an art project or an essay, perhaps, that wouldn't show up in a report card grade. Overall, talks with educators indicate, student-led conferences are a growing trend.

Additional resources


Student-Led Conferences Hold Kids Accountable
Would you like to find a way to actively engage students in their learning process and increase parent attendance at conferences? Student-led conferences can accomplish those two objectives. Included: Highlights of research about student-led conferences.

Student-Led Conferences Successful in Elementary, Middle Grades
As student-led conferences grow in popularity, educators are finding ways to improve their flow and productivity. Preparing students and parents for what's involved and practicing before "going live" can help. Included: Descriptions of student-led conferences at different grade levels.

Student-led Conferences Interdisciplinary Project

This site describes a detailed plan for student-led conferences at Frisbie Middle School in Rialto, California.


A School-Wide Approach to Student-Led Conferences: A Practitioner's Guide
By Patti Kinney, Mary Beth Munroe, Pam Sessions; National Middle School Association

Student-Led Parent Conferences
By Linda Pierce-Picciotto, Scholastic, Inc.

Student-Led Conferencing Using Showcase Portfolios
By Barbara Benson and Susan Barnett, Corwin Press, Inc.

Article by Sharon Cromwell
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